Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

30 MAY, 2013

Remoralizing Marriage: Dan Savage in Conversation with Andrew Sullivan at NYPL

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How marriage equality is fortifying the “equality” part rather than compromising the “marriage” part.

At a recent event from the terrific LIVE from the NYPL series held at the central branch of New York Public Library, Andrew Sullivan — one of my favorite people on and off the internet — took the stage to have a wide-ranging, funny, poignant, unabashedly honest conversation with celebrated sex columnist and LGBT rights advocate Dan Savage, mastermind of the monumentally heartening It Gets Better Project. (Meanwhile, twenty years ago this month, Andrew authored the seminal essay “The Politics of Homosexuality.”). The event at once a celebration of the release of Savage’s new book, American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics (public library), and a timely response to the height of today’s cultural heat around the antiquated legislature banning marriage equality.

In fact, among the conversation’s finest points is their discussion of what marriage is and stands for, from its dark roots as an institution for the oppression of women — one Susan Sontag famously termed “an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings” — to its aspiration of celebrating the deepest of human bonds, the kind that ultimately warmed Darwin’s rational heart. As Andrew brilliantly puts it, marriage equality, when closely examined, is an effort not to demoralize marriage but to remoralize it, to bring it closer to its ideals of a union of equals and further from its pathologies. Transcribed highlights below.

On how the promise of marriage equality is in fact reexamining and fortifying the “equality” part, ridding it of its historical baggage, rather than compromising the “marriage” part:

AS: What you’re doing, I think, is actually remoralizing — you’re not demoralizing. You’re saying that the morals that these structures have sustained are actually no longer moral, they’re actually forcing people to be cruel to one another, they’re forcing people to be miserable…

DS: …particularly women to be miserable, and to be enslaved. You know, harking back to traditional marriages in Western families, those were lousy times to be the female in the marriage.

On what the case of Andrew’s parents, who divorced after 49 years of marriage, tells us about the toxic and deceptive ideal of “till death do us part”:

DS: If your mother had been hit by a bus on the way to the lawyer [to divorce your father], everyone would have gone, “Oh, 49 years together — they had a successful marriage.” But 49 years and then they part — that’s an “unsuccessful marriage.” Because we define success in marriage as death … doesn’t matter how miserable you were, doesn’t matter whether it was fulfilling, doesn’t matter if it was an abusive relationship or one of sexual deprivation and lifelong misery and resentment and abuse — if somebody’s getting buried and you’re still married, awesome. And I don’t think that’s a workable definition of marriage when people have access to divorce courts and lawyers.

On how the option of divorce actually makes the marriages that do endure richer and more actively loving:

There’s something about realizing that marriage is opt-in — which it is now, marriage is always opt-in, at any moment you can opt out — it’s almost like you have to earn your partner’s presence in your life. … You cannot take them for granted in a way that you could when it was one woman, one man, for life.

In American Savage, which is excellent in its entirety and a necessary tool of contemporary cultural literacy, Savage explores the subject further:

Defenders of “traditional marriage,” circa 1750, not 1950, objected to anyone marrying for something so unstable as a feeling, Stephanie Coontz argues in Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, no one married for love. You married for property if you were a man; you were married off as property if you were a woman. Couples married to cement alliances. Princes married to unite kingdoms; peasants married to bring small parcels of land together. But marriage wasn’t something you did back then. Marriage was something that was done to you: Young, marriage-age adults (or preadolescents) didn’t have the power or judgment to craft marriage contracts, negotiate alliances, identify the best acreage in the village. Their families — their fathers or eldest male relatives — did that for them.

Much as the advice business is geared toward the needs of women … traditional marriage arrangements were geared toward the needs of men. Historically monogamy wasn’t imposed on or expected from men. Traditionally men (and “traditionally married” men) had concubines; men had multiple wives; men had mistresses; men had access to sex workers. It was only in the middle of the twentieth century— as marriage was redefined from an inherently sexist and oppressive institution to something more egalitarian (i.e., women could own property; they weren’t property)— that monogamous expectations were imposed on men, with often disastrous results. Men aren’t good at it, as anyone who has read a newspaper over the last ten years can attest (Edwards, John; Sanford, Mark; Vitter, David; Petraeus, David, et al.). But rather than extend the same license to women that men have always enjoyed— you can get some on the side, now and then, if you must, but be discreet— we’ve imposed on men the same limitations that women have always endured.

Complement with the wonderful Gay in America project and some heart-warming illustrated marriage equality for kids.

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22 MAY, 2013

Arianna Huffington on Redefining Success: 2013 Smith College Commencement Address

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“Money and power by themselves are a two-legged stool — you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you’re going to topple over.”

At the zenith of commencement season and its treasure trove of timeless advice — including Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, Greil Marcus on “high” and “low” culture, Neil Gaiman on making good art, and Bill Watterson on creative integrityArianna Huffington shares her wisdom with the young women of the 2013 Smith College graduating class, expounding on the message of her 2007 semi-memoir, On Becoming Fearless…in Love, Work, and Life (public library). Like some of history’s most memorable commencement addresses, the import at the heart of hers calls for redefining our notion of success by doing away with the treacherous idols of money and power, and instead focusing on the three W’s — well-being, wonder, and wisdom — with an eye toward the next wave of feminism. Transcript highlights and discussion below.

At the center of her argument is a call to challenge our fetishism of money and instead focus on meaning:

Commencement speakers are traditionally expected to tell graduates how to go out there and climb the ladder of success, but I want to ask you, instead, to redefine success.

[…]

At the moment, our society’s notion of success is largely composed of two parts: money and power. In fact, success, money and power have practically become synonymous.

But it’s time for a third metric, beyond money and power — one founded on well-being, wisdom, our ability to wonder, and to give back. Money and power by themselves are a two-legged stool — you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you’re going to topple over. And more and more people, very successful people, are toppling over. Basically, success the way we’ve defined it is no longer sustainable. It’s no longer sustainable for human beings or for societies. To live the lives we want, and not just the ones we settle for, the ones society defines as successful, we need to include the third metric.

Irreverently riffing off 1954 Smith graduation speaker Alistair Cooke’s notorious counsel that women’s way to the top would be determined by whom they marry, Huffington advises graduates to “sleep their way to the top” — in the literal sense. Like another wise woman, who knows that sleep is “the greatest creative aphrodisiac,” Huffington emphasizes how profoundly sleep impacts your every waking moment, from your creativity to your mood to your risk of obesity, smoking, and heart disease:

In 2007, sleep deprived and exhausted, I fainted, hit my head on my desk, broke my cheekbone and got four stitches on my right eye. And even as it’s affecting our health, sleep deprivation will also profoundly affect your creativity, your productivity, and your decision-making. The Exxon Valdez wreck, the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle, and the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island — all were at least partially the result of decisions made on too little sleep.

[…]

We have to change workplace culture so that it’s walking around drained and exhausted that’s stigmatized. … What adding well-being to our definition of success means is that, in addition to looking after our financial capital, we need to do everything we can to protect and nurture our human capital.

Huffington goes on to note that the Huffington Post newsroom, like in Thomas Edison’s lab and library, is equipped with nap rooms to boost productivity. Echoing Bertrand Russell’s timeless meditation on education and the good life, in which he rhetorically asked, “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?,” she points to the essential gift of which the money-mill robs us:

The problem is that as long as success is defined by just money and power, climbing and burnout, we are never going to be able to enjoy that other aspect of the third metric: wonder.

I was blessed with a mother who was in a constant state of wonder. Whether she was washing dishes or feeding seagulls at the beach or reprimanding overworking businessmen, she maintained her sense of wonder, delighted at both the mysteries of the universe and the everyday little things that fill our lives.

Huffington adds to other cultural icons’ collected wisdom on the meaning of life:

I’m convinced about two fundamental truths about human beings. The first truth is that we all have within us a centered place of wisdom, harmony, and strength. This is a truth that all the world’s religions — whether Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Buddhism — and many of its philosophies, hold true in one form or another. . . . The second truth is that we’re all going to veer away from that place again and again and again. That’s the nature of life. In fact, we may be off-course more often than we are on-course. . . . When we’re in that centered place of wisdom, harmony and strength, life is transformed from struggle to grace and we are suddenly filled with trust — no matter the obstacles, challenges and disappointments. Because there is a purpose to our lives, even if it is sometimes hidden from us, and even if the biggest turning points and heartbreaks only make sense as we look back, not as we are experiencing them. So we might as well live life as if, as the poet Rumi put it, “Everything is rigged in our favor.”

She concludes by asking this next generation of reconstructionists to conceive of a new way to think about success, particularly in the context of the question of how to be a woman in the world today, by seeking greater access to ourselves first and foremost, rather than greater access to power and its proxies:

So please don’t settle for just breaking through glass ceilings in a broken corporate system or in a broken political system, where so many leaders are so disconnected from their own wisdom that we are careening from one self-inflicted crisis to another. Change much more than the M to a W at the top of the corporate flowchart. Change it by going to the root of what’s wrong and redefining what we value and what we consider success.

And remember that while there will be plenty of signposts along your path directing you to make money and climb up the ladder, there will be almost no signposts reminding you to stay connected to the essence of who you are, to take care of yourself along the way, to reach out to others, to pause to wonder, and to connect to that place from which everything is possible. “Give me a place to stand,” my Greek compatriot Archimedes said, “and I will move the world.”

So find your place to stand — your place of wisdom and peace and strength. And from that place, lead the third women’s revolution and remake the world in your own image, according to your own definition of success, so that all of us — women and men — can live our lives with more grace, more joy, more empathy, more gratitude and, yes, more love.

Pair with Huffington’s On Becoming Fearless…in Love, Work, and Life, then complement with other fantastic commencement addresses by Bill Watterson, Debbie Millman, Neil Gaiman, Greil Marcus, David Foster Wallace, Jacqueline Novogratz, Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos.

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17 MAY, 2013

Gender Politics and the English Language, Pete Seeger Edition

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“Building a new and livable world will necessitate thousands of little changes.”

“Since the only test of truth is length of life,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her meditation on language, “and since words survive the chops and changes of time longer than any other substance, therefore they are the truest.” Indeed, language and culture are in constant osmosis, feeding and shaping each other.

From Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 (public library) — that remarkable collection of “social media” from the second wave of feminism, which gave us many brave women’s epistles of empowerment — comes this charming letter by legendary American folk singer and political activist Pete Seeger. At the time in his mid-fifties, he explores with equal parts wit and insight the gender politics of language:

The words congressperson and chairperson are awkward words, typical of the ugly words created by scholars and scientists. Working people traditionally simplify language. God bless the English peasants who gave us a hand, if irregular slanguage, by combining Anglo-Saxon and Norman French and discarding the formalities of both.

Why not use a vowel like o: congresso or chairo? And for those who don’t’ want to use the syllable man, likewise change foreman, boilerman, anchorman, newspaperman. et cêtera.

The language, agreed, needs more neutral words. Now’s the time to make the changes more creatively. Incidentally, we might as well face it: we’ve got to invent some neutral pronouns. Saying “his or her” all the time is awkward unless we want to slur it into “hizar.”

As a man, perhaps I have no right to make such suggestions, but as a user of words, I think I do. Building a new and livable world will necessitate thousands of little changes.

P.S. I’ve been the chairo of many committees, and I like the word.

Pete Seeger
Beacon, New York
February 5, 1974

It’s always a bit disorienting to consider the history of the things we’ve come to take for granted, but Ms. editor and reconstructionist Mary Thom reminds us in the chapter on language, in which Seeger’s letter appears, that the cultural shift toward gender neutrality took a long time. June 19, 1986, was a major turning point for one such thing that shapes modern gender politics: Even after the Second Wave of Feminism had gathered critical mass, The New York Times had been a major holdout against using “Ms.” as a courtesy title for women, clinging instead to the only then-accepted addresses: “Miss” for single women and “Mrs.” for the married. But on that fateful spring day, the Times finally capitulated and joined, after having failed to helm, this seminal and symbolic shift toward women’s independence.

Though Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 is long out of print, used copies are luckily still floating around and are very much worth a grab — the collection is absolutely fantastic from cover to cover.

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